Five miles upstream from Deep Creek Lake the gin-clear water flows lazily toward the 3,800-acre reservoir nestled in the mountains of Western Maryland. This is a different world.
In all but the floods of spring, only the waters leave the stream bed beneath overhanging mature hardwoods; the fish always stay behind. They like it here.
And so do I. Who needs the lake?
My boots feel the tender current of Meadow Mountain in the dim light of early morning. The heavy foliage will discourage the early sun for another hour in this wilderness 6 miles north of Oakland.
Chuck McCrobie and Calvert Bregel headed downstream after the path worn through the woods by wildlife took us to the stream; I headed in the opposite direction. When fishing, only on a trout stream, do I enjoy being alone -- but am I? I sense someone watching, look up and less than 25 feet away I see a large and curious owl perched on a partially fallen oak arched over the run.
Silently this grand bird had swooped down to its perch, probably to await the passing of a chipmunk rambling about for breakfast. We watch each other for a full minute, this owl and me, then it departs as expeditiously and silently as it arrived.
After such an experience, who needs a fish? I sit and savor the encounter until the urge to soak a worm takes over.
The hook is a small No. 10 to match the size of the native brook trout that abound in this and most other Garrett County streams that wend through mountains ultimately to Deep Creek Lake, Savage Reservoir, the Youghiogheny, or perhaps smaller lakes or non-tidal wetlands.
I put less than an inch of worm on the hook, and with my ultra-light rod flick it to a slight riffle that washes 5 feet into a pool of less than a foot in depth beneath the overhanging root system of an old oak.
I can see everything in these CLEAR waters -- or so I think. I watch the pinkish worm tumble through the riffle towards the sandy bottom of the pool lined on its sides with black roots, and bottomed with clear, light sand marred only by a scattering of fallen leaves.
There is an barely perceptible black streak from nowhere, and the worm disappears. I feel the tension on the rod as splashes of water obscure the pool's bottom so transparent a second before.
Where did it come from, this vigorous brookie with black back and brilliantly colored sides? With my light tackle, I can feel its every muscle tug. This is fishing at its finest.
I look the whipped fish over; it is 7 inches, and will be one of two kept for the frying pan at Little Sandy's Restaurant, where owner and McCrobies' wife Eileen has promised to fry our catch in the evening.
No, I don't feel guilty. By quitting time at noon, McCrobie, Bregel and I will have released nearly 50 brookies of 5 to 8 inches, keeping only six to celebrate the day. On the plate, one small wild trout is worth a pair of hatchery-reared 10-inch rainbows.
Sadly, only those who fish for natives can appreciate this -- and perhaps it's better that way. If everyone knew the taste of the wild variety, there would be many others streamside this day.
That's why I will not divulge the step-by-step directions to reach this stream, or any others -- some of hardly more than a trickle -- to those unwilling to find them for themselves. One must use a little initiative to enjoy the catching and eating of the wild trout.
My constructive advice to them is to obtain a topographic map of Garrett County and pore over it for streams flowing down mountains. Almost all of them host trout, and by not pinpointing any, there will be no overcrowded waters. Fishing pressure will be spread out.
Several hundred yards upstream, I have a different kind of strike. I am about the toss the dark-backed fish back when in the still dim light I notice it also looks a bit different.
It is a northern pike of about 7 inches, one of three to be caught this day. Instinctively, it has swum upstream from Deep Creek Lake to, like me, enjoy the fare of wild trout.